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With: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, Waise Lee, Simon Yam, Fennie Yuen, Yolinda Yam
Written by: Janet Chun, Patrick Leung, John Woo
Directed by: John Woo
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Cantonese, English, Vietnamese, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 08/17/1990

Bullet in the Head (1990)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Saigon Story

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

At this point, I thought I was quite familiar with director John Woo and his work. Ihad seen The Killer (1989), A Better Tomorrow (1986), andHard-Boiled (1992) as well as the dumb but entertaining Hard Target(1993). I already considered him one of the world's greatest living filmdirectors. I didn't know I was making an understatement. Bullet in theHead is a great, ambitious movie; another masterpiece in the canon of anartist who has many masterpieces.

I wasn't prepared for the honesty of this movie. Woo's other action pieces always had a sense of cowboy bravado to them; an adrenaline fused march into hero territory. You could shout and cheer during them. During Bullet in the Head though, the action scenes left me silent and wide-eyed. It's a story of three young men in their mid-twenties in 1967 Hong Kong who decide to try and make a fortune in the war-torn country of Vietnam. They strike up a deal with a friend to deliver medical drugs to a contact in Saigon. I'm not going to give away any more of the plot, but suffice to say everything goes downhill from there and the boys' loyalty is severely tested.

At one point, they wind up in a concentration camp. It is a long sequence and one of the most intense, dramatic and poetic sequences I have ever seen in a motion picture. In fact, watching this movie as a whole was as gruelling and rewarding as seeing Schindler's List or The Deer Hunter. This sequence puts Oliver Stone to shame.

This movie is not Platoon, however. Woo gives us plenty of daring escape action scenes, where our good guys, through their guts alone, shoot their way out of a nasty scrape. Like Spielberg with Schindler's List, Woo knows that we are watching the movie to be entertained. Although he has something important to say and a certain way of saying it, he knows there are things we want to see and deserve to see. We need a breather. We want to see the three men escape from the camp and take out as many Viet Congs as they can. But he does it only when the time comes naturally, with no compromises, and it's well balanced with the real drama of the movie.

I rented the import laserdisc of Bullet in the Head, which runs exactly 120 minutes, the maximum time you can get on just one disc. According to Leonard Maltin, the full running time is 136 minutes, but other American videos run only 100 minutes. The version I saw had one jarring cut toward the end, but otherwise didn't seem to be lacking in any way.

As difficult as it may sound to sit through this movie, it is a rich experience. This is a rare film that conveys complex emotions through its visual poetry. When the movie was over, I was left shaken but exhilarated. Bullet in the Head is a great film.

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